Monday, September 21, 2015

Closing Moscow's American Center: A blow to bilateral cultural dialogue

Sep 21, 2015, Victoria I. Zhuravleva,

The latest victim of rising anti-Americanism in Russia is the American Center in Russia, which now appears to be at the center of a renewed push by the Russian authorities to reduce American influence within the nation.
U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul taking the floor in the American Center in Moscow on Martin Luther King Day in 2013. Source: Courtesy U.S. Embassy in Moscow
In the middle of September, the Russian authorities closed the American Center at the Russian State Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow. This happened after 22 years of the center’s activity in the sphere of bilateral cultural exchanges and shortly after the death of Ekaterina Genieva, a famous librarian and cultural critic as well as former president of George Soros’ Open Society Institute in Russia, who did her best as the director of the library to prevent this move.
Closing the American Center is the next step in the Russian authorities’ general campaign against “foreign agents,” primarily, American ones. Over the past two years, American centers across Russia have been shut down. Nearly one year ago, Russia cancelled the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program – the largest educational exchange program between Russia and the U.S.

Also read: "Closing the American Center in Moscow closes a door for America"

The Russian Federation Council’s list of “undesirable organizations,” which are deemed to constitute a “threat to the foundations of the constitutional system of the Russian Federation, its defense capabilities and its national security,” includes many American organizations. Among them are the Open Society Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation (which stopped its activity in July, after the publication of Russia’s “patriotic stop list”).
Since 1993, the American Center has been working as a cultivator of U.S history and culture. It organized cultural and educational events and gave the floor to many American academics, politicians of different political views, actors and writers.
Russian students, especially those who are majoring in American Studies, had a brilliant opportunity to receive first-hand knowledge about another country and other people due to their participation in the center’s events and summer internship. This center has been functioning as a library of American literature, providing a lot of useful services (including online access to more comprehensive library resources) completely free of charge. 
That is why the closure of the American Center in Moscow is a blow to cultural dialogue between two peoples, to both academic and people-to people connections, which continued even during the Cold War. Just remember the Lacy-Zarubin Agreement on cultural and scientific exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, signed on January 27, 1958, which opened a new era in face-to-face contacts of Russians and Americans as a basis for better understanding of each other. The academic and cultural sphere was a platform where negotiations were possible during even very complicated periods in Russian-American relations.
The new administration of the Library of Foreign Literature insists that they will continue access to the former American Center’s resources and even will try to retain the independence of the center’s activities. Yet it will be an American Center without Americans, because of the highest pitch of anti-Americanism in Russia and the desire of the Russian authorities to use the “American card” in domestic political games.

For a very different take read: "What the closure of the American Center means for Russia"

According to the Levada Center opinion poll, half of the Russian population is sure that America impedes Russia’s development: 31 percent of Russians fear a military intervention and occupation by the U.S. At the same time, 33 percent are sure that, in a hypothetical case of a war against the U.S. and its allies, Russia would be able to gain a victory.
In turn, the Pew Research Center polls demonstrate that only 15 percent of Russians have a favorable opinion of America, down from 56 percent in 2011, and that there is hardly another nation in the world that has such a high level of resentment as well assuch a negative attitude towards the U.S.
U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul taking the floor in the American Center in Moscow on Martin Luther King Day in 2013. Source: Courtesy U.S. Embassy in Moscow
This anti-Americanism is being used both to support a siege mentality and to construct a “national idea” for Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian high-ranking officials encourage political discourse to follow these lines. Russia’s state-run television channels, the main source of news for more than 90 percent of Russians, feed and propagate these anti-American sentiments and prejudices.
On the one hand, this anti-Americanism correlates with the nationwide demand for greatness, which has emerged in the second half of Putin’s lengthy presidency as the part of a new and unspoken social contract between the authorities and the people.
On the other hand, this anti-Americanism correlates with the ardent social and political debates about the role of Russian liberalism in the political life of Putin’s Russia as well as the meaning of the word “liberal.”
“The fifth column,” “the national-traitors,” and “the U.S. State Department agents” have become popular epithets for Russian liberals. Sergey Obukhov, a Duma deputy and the KPRF’s Central Committee Secretary, has expressed this idea with great clarity.
“The meaning of word ‘liberal’ in the mass consciousness has been completely changed, because the liberal project and its leaders have failed in Russia,” he said. “To be more precise, what failed is what was carried out under the name and the banner of a liberal project, which was really the U.S. global project that has all the markings of a geopolitical confrontation. This project imposes the U.S. values on the entire world. Its understanding of human rights goes against our traditional cultural and mental values. In my opinion, these are the origins of the mass negative attitudes towards the word ‘liberal,’ which has become a swear word in our country.”
In this context of anti-Americanism, the American Center is considered to be a propagator of those so-called “alien to Russians” ideas and values. These ideas and values, they say, coincide with the liberal project and spread by force of people-to people diplomacy and trans-cultural dialogue. The obvious question is: Who will become the next object in this “Cold War for minds” as a provider of American influence as well as the instrument of U.S. “soft power”?
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.

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